Rav Dovid’s family was famed for scholarship. His father, Rav Shmuel, was the son of the famous scholar, Rav Yitzchok Betzalels. He had an older half-brother called Rav Yitzchok HaLevi, a great Talmud scholar, who founded a Yeshiva in Vladomir, Chelm and Lvow, Poland, and was the mechaber of two books on Hebrew grammar, called Siach Yitzchok and Bris HaLevi. This great man dearly loved his younger brother, and became his first teacher and counselor for many years. The affection between the two brothers never diminished in later years, and they continued to correspond with each other in writing after they had been separated. A part of this correspondence has been preserved. These letters are of great interest not only because they testify to the deep friendship and love that existed between the two brothers, but also because they contain an exchange of scholarly opinions on many problems of Jewish law.
In addition to his scholarship, Rav Dovid’s father was well-to-do, so that the young prodigy Dovid, who had shown unusual talent for study, was fortunate enough to grow up in an atmosphere of both wealth and learning. His early, happy youth was in marked contrast to his later years, when he suffered great hardships and poverty, as we shall see later. He became a reputed Talmudic scholar, and married Rivka, the second daughter of Rav Yoel Sirkes of Brest, mechaber of the famous commentary on the Tur, Bayis Chodosh (whom the Taz frequently quotes in his works). He was also a mohel. As was customary in those days, Rav Dovid stayed in his father-in-law’s house for several years, during which he applied himself fully to the study of the Talmud and Poskim (codifiers). This period served as a good preparation for the great contribution which he himself was to make to this immense literature.
After continuing his Torah studies for several years, he left his father-in-law’s house to make a home of his own, moving to Cracow. He was then appointed chief Rav of Potelych (Polish: Potylicz), near Rava, where he lived in great poverty. Later, he went to Poznań, where he remained for several years. Around 1641, he became Rav of the old community in the famed city of scholars, Ostrog, (or Ostroh), in Volhynia. There, the Taz established a famous Yeshiva, and was soon recognized as one of the great halachic authorities of his time. In Ostrog, the Taz wrote a commentary on Rav Yosef Caro’s Shulchon Aruch (Yoreh De’ah), which he published in Lublin in 1646. This commentary, known as the Turei Zohov Gold”), was accepted as one of the highest authorities on Jewish law. Thereafter, Rav Segal became known by the acronym of his work, the Taz. He accepted the position of Rav in a small town, a position he changed several times for other small towns. During this time he suffered poverty and want, and was stricken by other misfortunes also. Several of his children passed away in infancy, but overall Rav Dovid HaLevi enjoyed a peaceful period of teaching and writing.
However, the Taz and his family had to flee the massacres of the Cossack insurrection under Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648–1649. They were fortunate enough to leave Ostrog before it was captured by the Cossacks. He also succeeded in saving his priceless manuscripts. Rav Segal went to Steinitz near Ostrau, Moravia, where he remained for some time. Not happy in Moravia, he returned to Poland as soon as
order was restored, where he was invited to become Rav of Lvov (Lemberg), and remained there for the rest of his life. In Lemberg, Rav Segal was appointed Av Bais Din (head of the rabbinical court). When Rav Meir Sack, chief Rav of Lemberg, was niftar in 1653, he succeeded him in this position as well. However, a cruel blow was struck at the aging Rav when, three years before his death, in the spring of 1664, he lost his two older sons, Rav Mordechai and Rav Shlomo HaLevi, who were murdered in a pogrom in Lemberg. His wife had passed away long before; now Rav Segal married the widow of her brother, Rav Shmuel Hirz, Rav of Pińczów. His third son from his first marriage, Rav Yeshaya, and his stepson, Rav Aryeh Leib, were the two Polish scholars who were sent - probably by Rav Segal, or at least with his consent — to Turkey in 1666 to investigate the claims of the pseudo-Messiah, Shabsai Tzvi.
Most of Rav Segal’s wor published long after his petira. The Turei Zohov was published by Shabsai Bass in Dyhernfurth in 1692. The work is subtitled Mogen Dovid (“Shield of Dovid”, after Rav Segal’s first name) in many editions. Both commentaries (Taz and Mogen Avrohom), together with the main text, the Shulchon Aruch, were republished frequently with several other commentaries, and still hold first rank among halachic authorities. Two years before the publication of this work, Rav Yudel of Kovli, in Volhynia, a mekubol and Talmudic scholar who wrote a commentary on Orach Chaim, gave money to have it published together with the Taz. His wishes were never carried out, but his money was used to publish another of Rav Segal’s works, Divrei Dovid (“The Words of Dovid”), a super-commentary on Rashi (Dyhernfurth, 1690). Rav Segal also authored responsa which, though sometimes quoted from the manuscripts, were never published. He and Shabsai Kohen (the Shach) are among the greatest halachic authorities among the Acharonim. In 1683, the Council of Four Lands declared that the authority of the Taz should be considered greater than that of the Shach, but later the Shach gained more and more in authority.
The Taz wrote about his personal tragedies in his commentary, the Turei Zohov (see comments to Orach Chaim, end of Siman 151, the laws of the shul). “In my youth, when I lived in the holy community of Cracow, my home and personal house of study where located above the shul (this is a frowned-upon location as indicated by the Shulchon Aruch, ibid) and I was greatly punished when my children died and I pointed to this as the cause of their untimely death.” Later, he was appointed as Rav of several cities, including Lwów.
His commentary on the Shulchon Aruch was so well-respected and esteemed that many of the leading Rabbonim began to use his opinions, decisions and rulings as the basis for their own. This roused the ire of other Rabbonim such as Rav Shmuel Koidinover, mechaber of Birchas HaZevach, and Rav Gershon Ashkenazi, mechaber of Avodas HeGershuni, who felt that it was improper to rely on the decisions of such later authorities over deciding the case through the earlier works. They felt that the commentaries of the Taz and his contemporary Rav Shabsai Kohen, mechaber of the Shach, were full of errors and mistakes.
Just as earlier in history, the Maharam Lublin had attacked the Shulchon Aruch and the Rema for what he saw as shortcomings, and was ignored, so were the attackers of the commentaries on Shulchon Aruch ignored. Their opinion was in the minority and the majority of the Rabbonim greatly respected and followed the rulings of the Shach and Taz to the point where today, no Rav can earn semicha without having studied and mastered their commentaries in addition to having studied and mastered the Shulchon Aruch and the Rema.
As is well known, the Taz wrote a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. He was a Rav and Rosh Yeshiva in the big city of Posen in Western Poland, but after a few years decided that he was not cut out for the Rabbinate. He decided to become anonymous by going to the town of Lvov in Eastern Poland, where nobody would recognize him and he would be able to learn in peace and quiet.
After a few weeks in this town, someone came over to him in the shul and said, “Rabbeinu.” It turns out it was one of his former talmidim who happened to live in the town. He swore him to secrecy that he would not reveal who he was. After a few months, the Taz was resigned to find work to support his family. He found work in the slaughterhouse, skinning and cutting meat. A number of shailos came up in the plant. They happened to ask him if he knew what the din was and he paskened a few questions. Word got to the Rav of the town and he was very upset. He called in the Taz and decided to put him in cherem for paskening shailos instead of referring them to the Rav of Lvov. He could no longer learn in the shul but would have to stay in the booth where the guard sat. One time a young girl came with a question about a chicken to the Rav and the Rav paskened that it was not kosher.
The girl ran out crying. The Taz, who was in the booth outside the shul saw her and asked her why she was crying. She said, “My mother is a widow and this means we will not have chicken for Shabbos.”
The Taz looked at the chicken and said, “The chicken is kosher. Go and tell the Rav to look in Yoreh De’ah Siman 18 in the Taz, in footnote 8, and he will see that the chicken is in fact kosher.”
The young girl went back into the shul and told the Rav. The Rav looked up the halocha and then realized that he had made a mistake; the chicken was in fact kosher. He asked the girl, “Who told you this information?”
She replied, “The man sitting outside in the booth.”
The Rav went outside and asked him, “How did you know that Taz?”
“Because I am the Taz!”
The Rav immediately called the entire town together and announced in the shul that he was stepping down as Rav and handing the reigns over to the Taz. The Taz accepted. The student, who had known the whole time of the Taz’s identity, asked his Rebbe, “Why did you reveal your identity and why are you accepting the position?”
The Taz explained, “I really wanted to remain in hiding, but when I saw the tears and felt the pain of this yesoma (orphan), all my personal plans were no longer significant. I had to do something to prevent the pain and anguish to this poor family and any other poor family in the future.”
Rav Yehoshua of Belz (whose Yahrzeit is 23rd of Shevat) used to relate the following story he had heard from his father [the Sar Sholom] about the Taz:
Once, a woman who was having a very difficult time giving birth cried before the Taz to save her life and the baby.
“What can I do to save you? Only this can I offer,” replied the Taz. “Because of the fact that today I answered a difficulty in the commentary of the Tosafos, I hereby give this merit to you!”
As soon as he had spoken, she delivered the baby easily, without any further distress or difficulty.
The Sar Sholom concluded that this is no wonder at all: because the Taz answered a difficulty, easing the understanding of the Tosafos, when he passed on that merit on to her, they eased her difficulty and just as easily did she give birth. (Cited in the name of the Rav of Vilkomin – Chemda Genuza II, p. 30).
"Divrei Dovid" is a famous book of Rabbi TaZ
The minhag of the Taz was always to recite Kiddush on Shabbos and Yom Tov from the siddur. He explained that besides the kedusha found in the osiyos (letters) themselves, it prevented the embarrassment of others. Many times the Taz found himself a guest among people who were ignorant and did not know to recite Kiddush by heart. The Taz sought ways to avoid embarrassing other Jews, and was sure that if he said Kiddush by heart, they would be embarrassed to recite Kiddush from a siddur. Therefore, he always said it from a siddur and encouraged others to follow his example (Beis Rochel, Shaar Hachona, by Rav Naftoli Katz, № 34).
On the 29th of Shevat in 5776 the commemoration of Rabbi TaZ took place in the building adjacent to the remnants of TaZ shul in the Turei Zahav Jewish Kehilla. Our special guest was his grandson of the 11th generation who came for this commemoration from Giv'at Shmuel (Israel).
The 350th Yahrzeit of the Ta”Z, Lviv will take place on the 22th-26th February 2017.